Richard Harding Davis
The Boston Globe/June 9, 1914
Benevolent Despotism at Its Best
Richard Harding Davis Tells of Salutary Reforms
Health, Comfort, Morals Alike Improved
VERA CRUZ, June 8–I have paid taxes to the Governments of several countries and my experience is that the most desirable form of government is a benevolent despotism, especially if you are a friend of the despot.
That Havana is a healthy and beautiful city is because Gen. Gorges was backed by the benevolent despot, Gen. Leonard Wood. That the Isthmus of Panama is a health resort instead of a graveyard, and that the canal is finished is again due to Gen. Gorgas and to that other benevolent despot, Col., now Gov. Goethals.
Here in Vera Cruz we are enjoying the blessings of despotism. For example, the other morning the waiter was half an hour longer than usual in bringing any coffee, and when I asked why he said he had been in jail. He explained that he had been slow in serving an Army officer at the next table and the Army officer had called a policeman to the sidewalk—everyone here eats on the sidewalk—and he had locked the waiter in a cell.
So now, when I sit down to breakfast I first beckon a policeman to my table and then beckon to the waiter. It is the only satisfactory method of handling the servant problem. When I get back to Westchester County, if. after reading this, any of my servants still remain, I will put all of them in jail.
Public Works and Health
Gen. Funston is the benevolent despot of Vera Cruz. The city is governed by martial law. Under order from Gen Funston is the provost marshal, Col. E. H. Plummer of the 28th Infantry, and under his orders are the Mexican police. They are not allowed to arrest men wearing our uniform; so, also, under Col. Plummer are the infantry and Marines who patrol the streets and preserve the peace between the too jovial sailors and too obstreperous soldiers. How quickly peace obtains at the mere sight of a man with a fixed bayonet, is a psychological act some of those at Washington should study.
Also under the provost marshal is the department of public works, commanded by Maj. Paul Wolf of the 4th Infantry. The department of health is in the hands of Maj. T. C. Lyster and Maj Noble of the Medical Corps. These two departments, though under separate commanders, are dependent on each other and work in harmony and to the public benefit.
Majors Lyster and Noble work inside the houses and Maj. Wolf outside. Maj. Lyster points out the unsanitary markets, kitchens and laundries, and Maj Wolf sends men to make them clean. Lyster says that a field of weeds is a breeding place for mosquitoes. Wolf drains the field and sprinkles the pools and swamps with crude oil.
These officers are picked men and experts. Noble served as right-hand man to Gorgas for five years in Panama and accompanied him when, at the invitation of the government of South Africa, he went there to suggest improvements in the care of the natives in the diamond mines.
Lyster was for five years in charge of the public health of Havana and in medical work of the same sort in the Philippines and in Panama. Maj. Wolf gained his experience in public work in the Philippines, where he built a prison to hold 600 native inmates, using only native labor. Later he was detailed as executive officer at Leavenworth Prison, where drainage, sewers and water supply were all under his direction.
No Politics, No Graft
Both departments are peculiarly fortunate in their assistants, who are refugee Americans. Many of these are working chiefly from motives of patriotism. There are medical men who have had large, paying practices in Mexico City. Engineers from mines are even foremen of street cleaning gangs. They are a splendid type.
They are stranded here and need the money. As a consequence the departments command the services of men worth many times what the Army is allowed to pay them. These men are experienced in handling native labor, they speak Spanish easily and are glad to escape from the idleness and boredom of the life of the portales.
In their appointments there is no politics, and as they are not working for what there is in it, but because they would rather work than sit idle, there is no graft. The first to learn this were the gamblers and proprietresses of houses in the red light district. As a matter of course those came to Gen. Funston and inquired cheerfully to which officer should they pay tribute. They were grieved to find that that officer had been given perpetual leave of absence.
When the Army first arrived gambling houses were many and wide open. At 1 o’clock on the morning after I won 100 pesos, which in real money is $10, Funston closed all of them. The proprietor of the one I patronized still shakes his head at me reproachfully. He undoubtedly thinks the General and I split his money 50-50, and then closed his place so that he could not win it back. He wrongs us, but I still have his money. It is another argument in favor of the benevolent despotism.
After the lid was screwed down on gambling; the bullfighting was stopped and in the bull ring boxing was substituted. With the change everyone, especially the bull, was delighted, with the exception of the bull-fighters. They were invited to witness the boxing. They pronounced it a brutal, demoralizing spectacle.
White and Scarlet “Black Marias”
In other ways the American despots have interfered with the inalienable right of the Mexican to enjoy the sufferings of others. It used to be that when a Mexican was intoxicated the police roped him and lashed him to a handcart. They then, to the delight of the populace, wheeled him through the streets like a wild animal caught in a net. He snarled and struggled. I have seen a man and a woman lashed together on the same cart, kicking and fighting, followed by a delighted mob.
The benevolent despotism changed that. Now we have black marias painted white and scarlet, with curtains discreetly drawn. They are so attractive that to ride in one is a pleasure. They almost encourage intoxication.
Before the Army arrived the streets of Vera Cruz were filled with beggars. cripples, the blind and the diseased. From hotel to hotel they dragged themselves. showing their sores and exhibiting pitiful and monstrous deformities. To come in contact with some of them was to acquire horrible unnamed diseases. They have now been removed to hospitals or furnished with enough money to put them beyond need of making capital out of their misfortune.
Worse than the condition of the beggars was that of the dogs. They overran the city. In print their state cannot be explained. If it made us suffer to look at them it can be imagined what the animals themselves endured. The benevolent despotism reached out its hand and removed them.
It also removed, at least to a distance, newsboys and bootblacks who used to crowd among the tables where cleanly dressed men and women were sitting, and paw them. They wore rags steeped with germs of every disease known to a tropical seaport, and none of them since his birth ever had bathed. For them a deadline was established at the edge of the sidewalk. If a boy passes it a spiggotty policeman arrests him or the nearest American soaks him with a glass of water. He is much more in terror of the water than the policeman.
Saloons Close at 10 P M.
Another order of the provost forbids after 10 o’clock the sale anywhere of alcoholic drinks. This means everybody, but is especially wise in helping patrols get sailors back to ships and soldiers to barracks. Another order is impending by which Vera Cruz dealers who have been cheating our sailors, soldiers and Marines will be required to print a list of prices of all drinks and food and post it conspicuously each day. The signs are to give the rate of exchange.
Funston has found many excellent laws and ordinances on the books of the municipality. But they had seldom been enforced. When they had been it was to obtain graft. Under the American Board of Health these ordinances ceased to remain dead and became vigorously alive. Inspectors were sent to every house in the city, and all the rubbish that for years had accumulated and was breeding flies and disease was forcibly removed, piled in the streets and burned. For an entire week the city looked like an old-time election night.
Back of the city was a public dump, spreading over an area of a quarter of a mile square. This was a battle ground for flies, buzzards and mongrel dogs. If you threw a stone anywhere into this mean you could raise a cloud of flies so thick you could photograph it. This dump is now reduced to an incinerating plant, burning continually, which destroys garbage and refuse.
When Maj. Wolf first took hold, he found at work keeping the city clean only 30 men. ,Before he could recruit the proper kind of workers he made petty offenders clean the streets. The legend is that whenever he was shorthanded. he would say to the police, “I need 30 more white wings to clean up the plaza. Arrest 30 drunken Mexicans.” In those days they were not hard to find. – Next morning. when sober, each was given a broom and set to sweeping the plaza. Their friends sat on benches and guyed them. It worked both ways and intemperance decreased suddenly and the streets were spotless.
Cleaning Up the Hotels
Today,Wolf has 10 American inspectors, 20 foremen and 500 natives. Of these 200 are at the service of the Health Department and the others are screening markets. filling in holes. digging sewers, draining swamps, collecting garbage and sweeping streets. They are paid regularly and well and they work. Why they work and what it is all about they have not the least idea. They undoubtedly think we are mad, but so long as they make the dirt fly what they think will never hurt us.
This week, having cleaned no hospitals, markets, laundries and bake-shops, the benevolent despotism turned its attention to the principal hotels. So -many complaints regarding them had come to Maj. Lyster that he has appointed J. B. McManus to devote his entire attention to their misdeeds.
McManus is a tall, lean American. He looks like William Gillette. He wears always freshly ironed white duck and he is invariably cool and smiling. The proprietors of the hotels hate him as the Devil hates holy water.
The morning he made his first inspection of the Diligencias Hotel I waited for him on the sidewalk. As I live at the Diligencias. I have never dared go near the kitchen.
“What was it like?” I asked.
He showed me a morning paper which he carried tightly rolled. The paper was foul with dirt.
“I used this only to point out the filth,” said McManus. “and look what happened to it.”
Then McManus ordered changes that will cost the hotel hundreds of dollars.
I have asked all the benevolent despots the same question: “How long after we sail away from Vera Cruz will your good work be continued?” The answers differed. Some say until our ships reach the breakwater. Others more optimistic say until our ships pass the breakwater.